The SFPD is accusing a member of the Patrol Special Police force of picking up a transgender prostitute and frequenting a Tenderloin bar it says is known for connecting transgender prostitutes with johns — behavior the department calls unbecoming of his position.
Although Assistant Patrol Officer Roberto Ortega has not been charged with any crime, former police Chief George Gascón filed a complaint with the Police Commission recommending that he be disciplined and forced to resign.
But Ortega said he is simply being harassed and discriminated against for his race, the sexual orientation of his friends and for being a Patrol Special officer.
Patrol Specials are an only-in-San Francisco phenomenon dating back to the Gold Rush. The force was created to provide security for businesses and citizens. But unlike other private security firms, it is protected by the City Charter and partially supported by public funds, and officers are allowed to carry guns. Patrol Special officers can be difficult to distinguish from police officers because they wear very similar uniforms and badges.
San Francisco police and Patrol Specials have historically had a chilly relationship, although in some cases they work together. That tension dates at least to the early 1990s, when a then-new police program began picking up private security details and some police felt the Patrol Specials were taking away business that brought them lucrative overtime income. A Controller’s Office report released in September recommended The City cut ties with the unusual force because it drains city funds and has become a disciplinary headache for the Police Commission. The report said between July 2006 and March 2010, the Police Department investigated 40 complaints about Patrol Specials.
In the most recent complaint, SFPD Officer Michael Evans allegedly observed "known transgender prostitute" Diana Rivera approaching and entering Ortega’s car after a brief conversation at 4:21 a.m. The complaint said Evans recognized Ortega and made eye contact with him, after which "Ortega drove away very quickly."
Believing that he had just witnessed a prostitution offense, Evans then stopped Ortega and asked him if he knew the woman was a prostitute. According to the complaint, Ortega said the woman was a friend who he was taking to the bank to give some money, complaining that Evans had only stopped him because his passenger was transgender.
The complaint said Evans admonished Ortega but did not cite him. However, Evans said he continued to investigate the case and discovered that Ortega frequents Divas Nightclub and Bar on Post Street near Polk Street, both on and off duty. By knowingly visiting a bar located in an area known for prostitution, Ortega allegedly "engaged in conduct unbecoming an Assistant Patrol Special Officer."
Ortega said Rivera is a friend, "and to my knowledge, she is not a prostitute."
Police Commissioner Jim Hammer, who was assigned to the case, declined to comment. Patrol Special President Alan Byard also declined to comment, saying he was unfamiliar with case details.
Patrol Special client and supporter Ann Grogan said she thinks Patrol Specials and police officers generally have a cooperative and mutually appreciative relationship, but noted that historically there have been tensions between the two. She said it was possible the charges could be related to that lingering tension.
She opined that Ortega was not actually seen breaking any law, and cannot be disciplined simply for spending time in a bar.
“What an officer does in his or her private time is their business,” she said. “As long as they comport themselves in a decent manner, what does it matter if he’s off duty and socializing in a Nob Hill bar or a bar in the Tenderloin?”